Saturday, December 14, 2013

Alex Gibney spread thin

If you don't know the name Alex Gibney, chances are you aren't watching many documentaries.

Because he's had, like, 30 of them in the last ten years.

He set aside his 2013 for two of the bigger villains in public life these past few years, depending on your perspective of course. First it was We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which focuses on the exploits of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and then it was The Armstrong Lie, which delves into Lance Armstrong's spectacular fall from grace. I just watched the first last night, and will do my best to track down the second, as I was one of the first to think there was something fishy about Lance Armstrong a full decade ago.

These and the other 28 documentaries Gibney has directed in the last decade are all quite good -- but I'm starting to wonder if quite good is really good enough.

Yes, I'm wondering if Alex Gibney is starting to spread himself a little thin.

It was about three years ago that I noticed Gibney's documentaries starting to get a little less interesting. He had roared on the scene with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), a one-two punch that alone gave him a seat at the table with the best documentarians working today. In fact, those two movies made me think that it was safe to assume that any subsequent Gibney documentaries would also be masterpieces.

Since 2010, however, he's started churning out at least two feature films per year -- again, all of them quite good I'm sure. Casino Jack and the United States of money was the first among these I saw. It was quite good, but in a non-specific sort of way. It was impeccably researched and crafted, and at the end I thought "So what?" In 2010 Gibney also directed a segment in the scattershot Freakonomics documentary, which was largely a failure (the package, not specifically Gibney's segment, but Gibney's segment didn't help), and the feature Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which placed another villain in his crosshairs. I haven't seen that one despite it sitting in my Netflix queue since it came out.

Two thousand eleven was a bit of a different year for Gibney, as his documentary Magic Trip was about beat writers, and he surrounded that with two sports docs, Catching Hell (about baseball fan/villain Steve Bartman) and The Last Gladiators (about hockey enforcers). But 2012 brought him back to revealing society's seedy underbelly with Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (about Catholic priest pedophilia scandals) and Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (self-explanatory).

All quite good, I'm sure.

And in fact, most unseen by me, so I should hardly be writing a post like this at all.

Except that I had that kind of feeling about We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, that it was highly competent but ultimately not quite as earth-shattering as I hoped it would be. I guess one guy can only shatter the earth so many times before you get bored of it.

In some ways, this is a self-fulfilling analysis. Finding myself somewhat less than totally impressed with a Gibney doco, I extrapolate that he has too much on his plate. Spend a year rather than three or four months on a single movie, I say, and let's see what you come up with then. And to be honest, I don't know what different I'd want from We Steal Secrets. It's all there. The work has all been done.

At this point it's probably appropriate to harken back to something I've written about before on this blog, a concept I like to call The Documentary Ceiling. The Documentary Ceiling recognizes the notion that while many if not most documentaries are "quite good," only a few of them are really exceptional, because there's a ceiling on the potential impact a documentary can have on me. Impeccably and tirelessly researched subject matter, with all the right people interviewed saying all kinds of elucidating things, can only do so much for me. I need either a specific narrative choice or a specifically eccentric or emotional topic to really drive a documentary through its own glass ceiling.

So really, Gibney could just be the poster child for The Documentary Ceiling, because his films are generally told in a straightforward style that relies very little on a specific technique or approach. Surely he's got a perspective, often times a liberal one, but otherwise, it's a very journalistic form of filmmaking.

But I do think it's fair to assume that someone's work suffers when he has been working himself to the bone. If you wonder why we are satisfied with one out of every three of Woody Allen's films being good, it's because he makes one every single year, and we have come to expect some of them to be duds. Whereas other directors will only make two films in six years, Allen will make six, so he's got room to misfire.

The thing is, Gibney is so good that none of his films -- at least the four or five (depending on how you classify Freakonomics) that I've seen -- are duds. They are all good. They just aren't all special.

Is it too much to ask Gibney's films to be special? He's so driven to expose corruption, to right wrongs, to hold people accountable in the cold light of day, that his films have developed a kind of comfortable sameness. You can't tell what Gibney gets really worked up over, because he gets worked up over everything, it would appear.

Maybe how he rakes Lance Armstrong over the coals will demonstrate the special passion I'm looking for.

I don't just want a do-gooder, which Gibney certainly is. I want a do-greater.

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